The Ultimate Guide to Mastering Night Photography

April 09

37 min. to read

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Take these night photography tips and tricks into consideration the next time you go out to photograph in the night.

You’ve probably seen amazing night photography images: the Milky Way stretching across the sky, a word spelled out with light, the perfect shot of a lightning strike. How do people take these incredible images? While low light photography may seem complicated, the photography techniques are actually fairly simple.

There are plenty of cool photography ideas that will leave viewers asking how you managed to capture the moment. Three interesting night photography techniques are photographing stars, light painting, and capturing storms. If you start by learning these photography techniques, you can apply what you’ve learned to even more forms of night photography. 

The Ultimate Guide to Mastering Night Photography Image1Photo by Simon & Lisa Thomas
The Milky Way

Beautiful night time photography often includes the Milky Way stretching in an arc across the sky. Or perhaps stars with a brightly lit tent in the foreground. The good news is that anyone with a digital camera can succeed with night photography. All you need is a camera that can take exposures up to 30 seconds and a bit of time and patience. 

Your main goal is to get your camera to pick up light that the human eye can’t see. With night time photography, the amount of light available to you will be severely limited. You won’t be able to capture many stars in the sky without long exposures. 

Things you’ll need for night sky photography

There are a couple of items you need to have in your arsenal before learning how to master night sky photography. The most important are:

  • A tripod
  • A camera that can take long exposures
  • A clear, dark night

The Ultimate Guide to Mastering Night Photography Image2Photo by Nathan Anderson

Things that are helpful for night sky photography

Though these things aren’t completely necessary for night sky photography, you may find them helpful:

  • A new moon (for the best night light)
  • A battery grip (so you can shoot more images before running out of battery)
  • A cable release / remote shutter
  • A camera that can shoot in bulb mode
  • A flashlight (for lighting objects in the foreground)
  • Colored gels (for adding color to your illuminated objects)
  • Anything you need to keep warm at night
  • A wide-angle lens

Where should you go for night sky photography?

It’s important to go as far away from light pollution as possible, since any excess light will minimize the number of stars you can see in your photographs. Typically, the best night light for Milky Way photography is far from a city. If you’re lucky enough to live out in the country, congratulate yourself on picking such a spectacular location. 

When it comes to night time photography, the clarity of the sky is just as important as the location. If you try to shoot on a cloudy night, you won’t be able to see any stars through the clouds. Make sure you’re shooting on a clear night, and check the weather forecast beforehand to make sure your camera won’t get rained on halfway through the night. 

The Ultimate Guide to Mastering Night Photography Image3Photo by Jason HahnAdditionally, the phase of the moon plays a large role in the number of stars you can see. If you’re attempting astrophotography under a full moon, the light from the moon will reduce the number of stars you can see as well as how long you can expose your images. The ideal time for night sky photography is during a new moon, although you can shoot under a crescent moon as long as you make sure the moon:

  • is not in your frame
  • won’t move into your frame during the duration of your shooting

You may want to find a dark area that has something interesting in the foreground. This can be anything from mountains to an old building, a lake, or a stand of trees.

The best night light for lighting foreground objects is a crescent moon: it’s not too bright or too dark. You can also create interesting images by lighting the foreground with a flashlight and colored gels.

Finding the Milky Way

Finding the Milky Way is one of the first steps in learning how to photograph the Milky Way. On a very dark and clear night in the middle of the desert, the Milky Way may be visible to the naked eye. In many situations, however, this is not the case. Your camera will be able to pick up light that your eyes can’t, but how can you know where to point your camera? There are a handful of free apps that allow you to identify stars in real time. Find one that works for you, then point it at the night sky to determine the position of the Milky Way. 

The Ultimate Guide to Mastering Night Photography Image4Photo by Fabio AntenoreNight photography settings for starscapes

Before anything else, make sure your tripod is set up on sturdy ground where it won’t move during the exposure. Any slight movement can ruin low light photography. Star photography settings can vary, so start here and adjust accordingly:

  • ISO — It’s important that you shoot at the lowest ISO possible to avoid excessive noise. Start with an ISO of 800 for night time photography. If you’re able to use a wider aperture, you can use a lower ISO. Star photography settings depend on your camera and lens. You may need to boost your ISO as high as 1600.
  • Aperture — Capturing the Milky Way is made easier when shooting with a fast lens — that is, a lens that can open to a wide aperture (f/2.8 or f/1.4). Though it isn’t extremely necessary, this type of lens will allow you to shoot at the lowest ISO possible while still capturing enough light.
  • Shutter speed — With the widest aperture possible and a low or medium ISO, you should be able to capture excellent Milky Way photos at a shutter speed of 30 seconds. Most digital cameras will allow you to choose this setting without having to resort to bulb mode. Try taking a test shot at 30 seconds, f/4, and ISO 800. Are the stars not bright enough for your liking? Boost your ISO or widen your aperture if your lens allows. The great thing about night time photography is that once you’ve set your exposure perfectly for one image, the rest of the night you should be able to use the same exposure settings.
  • White balance — Automatic white balance is fine if you’re shooting RAW images, since white balance can easily be adjusted in post-production. If you want to play around with color a little bit, change your white balance settings while shooting your test images. A tungsten white balance will give your photographs a beautiful bluish hue, while setting your white balance to shade will create a warm, orange glow.
  • Focusing — If you’re only shooting the night sky, setting your focus to infinity will guarantee a sharp image. If you’re shooting a foreground object as well, it’s important to make sure everything is in focus before photographing. Low light photography makes it difficult to use automatic focus. Set your focus ring to manual and shine a light on your subject to help you focus on it before shooting. 

The Ultimate Guide to Mastering Night Photography Image5Photo by Evgeny Tchebotarev
Lighting foreground objects

This is the fun part. Let’s say you have a building in the foreground that you want lit up. This is where your flashlight and colored gels come in handy. While your shutter is open, shine the flashlight on the foreground for a couple of seconds.

While this photography technique can create interesting photographs, you can add another dimension to low light photography by introducing colored gels. Many colored gels are shaped to be able to fit onto an external flash, but if you’re going the flashlight route you can buy cheap gels that you can either tape onto or hold in front of your flashlight while lighting your subject. You can play around with mixing and matching colors to create the mood you desire. You can even use your flashlight to create interesting light trails in the foreground. 

There are a lot of different photography techniques for photographing stars, and the best way to figure out which is best for you is by practicing. Night photography settings vary greatly based on the amount of light available. Though following these suggestions will allow you to understand the basics of night photography, only getting outdoors and practicing yourself will allow you to stretch your creativity and truly master night photography. 

Post-processing in Luminar 

Straight out of the camera, night sky photography can be a bit lackluster. Luckily, editing night sky images with photo editing software such as Luminar 3 can instantly make them pop. 

The Ultimate Guide to Mastering Night Photography Image6

Luminar offers a wide range of easy-to-use Looks, and one of the best ways to start editing is to simply play around with them and see if any catch your eye. Depending on the mood you want, you can go a lot of different directions. Keep in mind that every Look has a sliding scale from 0 to 100, so you can determine how aggressively you want the Look to adjust the photo.  

The Ultimate Guide to Mastering Night Photography Image7The Dark Moon Look instantly makes a photograph dark and moody. In our example shot, the trees in the foreground have all but disappeared, and the contrast has been boosted. If this is too dark and moody for you, try another Look. 

The Ultimate Guide to Mastering Night Photography Image8The Contrast Enhancer Look offers a more natural boost. In the original photograph, there was a bit of haze over the image and the stars weren’t very sharp. Using this Look, the stars are much sharper, the contrast is more appealing, and interesting red and purple tones have been drawn out. This Look instantly boosts the night sky without making the overall image too dark.

The Ultimate Guide to Mastering Night Photography Image9Another great Look to try for night sky images is Dramatic Landscape. Can you see how one simple click instantly brought even more stars into the image? All of the dim stars are instantly lightened and sharpened, making the image more dramatic. 

The Ultimate Guide to Mastering Night Photography Image10

The Milky Way and the stars are pretty easy to spot in this image, but perhaps the overall tone is a little warm. In this case, you can use the right-hand panel to adjust the white balance. Using the drop-down menu, you can instantly change the white balance by choosing shade, daylight, fluorescent, etc. In this case, I’ve chosen the fluorescent white balance to add cooler tones to the image. 

The Ultimate Guide to Mastering Night Photography Image11

Warm or cool, sharp or hazy, there’s no “right” way to edit your night sky photography. Simply play around with the Looks and adjustment tools in Luminar 3 until you’re happy. Try Luminar 3 now to see how easy photo retouching can be. 

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Light painting

Have you ever seen a photograph of words or images drawn with light? These photos are taken using a technique known as light painting. Night time photography is easily enhanced with added light. While it looks complicated, light painting is actually fun and easy. With this type of night photography, the possibilities are truly endless. You can use different colors, photography techniques, and light sources to create a wide range of images. 

The Ultimate Guide to Mastering Night Photography Image12Photo by Daniil Silantev
What you’ll need

Although you can do without some of this equipment, all of these things make light painting significantly easier.

  • A DSLR camera with a bulb setting
  • A tripod
  • A cable release
  • A light source – this can be a penlight, flashlight, portable flash or any other light painting tool. If you want to get even more creative, carry around colored gels to use in addition to your light source.

Night photography settings for light painting

  • White balance — Automatic white balance is fine if you’re always shooting in RAW. However, setting your white balance to tungsten will generally give you the best results for low-light photography. This is all up to your personal preference. Tungsten will give your photographs cooler tones, while automatic white balance will typically leave you with warmer tones.
  • Focusing — In low-light photography, focusing can be extremely difficult, especially when your focus is set to automatic. To make things easier, set your focus ring to manual and shine your flashlight on the area that you’ll be light painting.
  • ISO — Since the majority of your image will be dark, it’s important to use a very low ISO to avoid excessive noise in the darker areas. Since the exposure will be long, there’s no risk in underexposing your image with a low ISO. Setting the ISO to around 100 will be perfect.
  • Shutter speed — Depending on how much light you want to paint onto your scene, your night photography settings will vary. For exposures longer than 30 seconds, you’re going to need to set your camera to bulb and use a remote shutter release. A remote shutter also comes in handy for exposures shorter than 30 seconds, since any camera shake can show up in your final image.
  • Aperture — You’ll generally have good results around f/5.6, as opening up any wider may let in too much light, while closing down may result in an underexposed image. Use f/5.6 as a starting point and adjust from there depending on whether you want more or less depth of field. 

The Ultimate Guide to Mastering Night Photography Image13Photo by Evgeny Tchebotarev

Where to shoot

Are you planning on creating your subjects purely out of light, or would you like to light up your subject with a flashlight?

Your location depends largely on your subject. Vehicles, houses, and abandoned structures can all be interesting subjects to illuminate. Regardless of your subject, however, the best night light will be as far away from city lights as possible. Since you’ll be using a long exposure, any light in the background of your photograph will cause that area to become overexposed. 

If you want to create subjects using light, find an area that’s fitting for what you want to draw. A playground can provide an interesting background against which to draw people, while an empty field can provide a blank canvas on which you can draw anything. 

The Ultimate Guide to Mastering Night Photography Image14Photo by Paul Carmona
Night photography tips for light painting

This is the section you’ve been waiting for. You have a lot of night photography tips, but how do you actually paint with light? 

  • Make sure your camera is set up on the tripod properly (on stable ground where it won’t fall over or get knocked over by wind).
  • Set your camera on bulb, release the shutter with your remote shutter release, and walk into the scene in front of your camera (you can practice with shorter shutter speeds without using bulb).
  • Begin lighting your subjects. Photography techniques will differ depending on whether you’re creating objects or lighting objects that are already there:

Painting subjects with light — Use a small light such as a penlight to create thin, even lines. In order for your camera to pick up on the light, you must point the penlight directly at the lens. Begin making your desired shapes with the flashlight. Remember that your camera will pick up on all light, so turn off your flashlight before turning it back on to make a new object. With more complicated images, it can be hard to remember where you’ve already painted. Start simple, then review your progress and keep trying. 

Lighting existing objects — For this technique, you don’t want to point the flashlight directly at the camera. You can use a flashlight or external flash (to cover larger areas) or a penlight for more precise lines. Make sure you never point the flashlight at yourself unless you want to appear in the image yourself. Keep moving during the whole exposure, and make sure not to keep the light on any one area for too long; if you do, that area will end up overexposed. For a more abstract feel (meaning that certain areas are lighter or darker than others), stay as close as 1 to 2 feet from your subject while lighting it. For light that’s more uniform, you can stay as far away as 10 feet from your subject depending on the strength of your light source.

Review your image

Learning how to take night photos involves a lot of trial and error. Reviewing your images will let you make the proper adjustments for your next exposure. Were parts of your image too dark or too light? Maybe focusing the light in a certain place for a longer or shorter time will fix that. Do you appear in your image? Make sure no light falls on you during the exposure and that you don’t stay in one place for too long. Is the light simply too dim? Try increasing your exposure time. 

The Ultimate Guide to Mastering Night Photography Image15Photo by Evgeny Tchebotarev
Photography techniques with colored gels

If light painting wasn’t fun enough for you, adding colored gels can make your images stand out from the crowd.

Adding color to your light painted images is easy with the help of colored gels on an external flash. The addition of color to the scene creates an eerie feel that simply can’t be created with normal light. A green light on an abandoned structure makes it look as though an alien spaceship has just landed, while a red light inside a window adds a sinister feel. Colored gels aren’t the only ways to create color in a light painted image. You can use star projectors, disco balls, lava lamps, black lights, or electroluminescent wire to create a wide variety of effects. 

The possibilities are only limited to your imagination. The internet is filled with beautiful examples of light painting that will help you get inspired. Take these night photography tips to heart, then go outside and start shooting! These photography techniques are simply the starting point; use your creativity to take photograph after photograph and find your own set of photography techniques that work for you. 

The Ultimate Guide to Mastering Night Photography Image16Photo by Michael Rogers
Photographing storms and lightning

Photos that capture a bolt of lightning in the sky are stunning. Lightning is an unpredictable force of nature that we can barely see with our naked eye, so capturing it creates hauntingly beautiful images. There are a few night photography tips and tricks you need to know before you go out and try to capture lightning yourself. With a bit of knowledge under your belt, you’ll learn how to take night photos in no time!

The most important thing to remember when photographing lightning is to be safe! Although lightning is intriguing and beautiful, it’s an unpredictable force that can and does injure people. Being outdoors during a storm increases your vulnerability as well as the vulnerability of your camera equipment; you don’t want your camera getting ruined by the wind and the rain. 

Helpful tips

  • Photograph from inside a vehicle if possible.
  • If you’re lucky enough to have an weather-resistant camera, you can set up your tripod outside and use a remote shutter from inside your house or vehicle. (If you don’t have a weather-resistant camera, you can even use something as simple as a plastic bag with a hole cut out for the lens, but be aware that wind can blow rain onto your lens).

What equipment do you need?

  • A digital SLR with a bulb setting
  • A sturdy tripod
  • A cable release with a locking option
  • A wide-angle lens or telephoto lens, depending on how much extra context you want in your images. The wider the angle of view, the more sky you’ll have in your frame. And the more sky you have in your frame, the better chance you have of capturing a lightning strike.
  • Rain gear! (for both you and your equipment)

The Ultimate Guide to Mastering Night Photography Image17Photo by Josep Castells
Best night light for photographing storms

As with most night photography, it’s important to find a dark area so that you don’t have too much background light interfering with your long exposures. If you’re lucky enough to live out in the country, you can photograph right from the comfort of your own backyard. If you’re a city dweller, drive as far away from the city as you can. The further away you are from city lights, the more lightning you’ll be able to capture in one image. 

It’s up to you what other elements you want in your photograph. Just be aware that light pollution may make photographing lightning in a city more difficult than out in the country. 

Places you should avoid when there’s a lightning storm:

  • An open field
  • The top of a tall object, including a hill
  • Bodies of water
  • Below trees
  • Near power lines

All of these places pose an increased risk to you and your equipment. It’s important to find a safe place to photograph. You should also be aware of how close the lightning is striking and try to find an area a bit away from the storm.

Helpful photography techniques

Make sure you place your tripod on sturdy ground and that your camera is completely secure on the tripod. Using a cable release will reduce the amount of camera shake. Take a look at your surroundings through the viewfinder: Is there a pesky building in the corner that will be lit up by the lightning? Is there a power line that you don’t want in the frame? Though it may be hard to see at night, the lightning will light up anything that’s in the foreground of your image. It’s important to set up the shot before you begin photographing so you don’t end up with beautiful lightning in an ugly setting. 

The Ultimate Guide to Mastering Night Photography Image18Photo by Andras Kovacs
Night photography settings for storms

  • ISO — Since you’ll be using long exposures to capture multiple strikes, it’s important to use a low ISO in order to reduce the amount of noise in the final image. An ISO of 100 or 200 is best.
  • Focusing — Make sure you turn off automatic focus before you begin shooting. Lightning will make it difficult for your camera to focus on one particular point in the image. Set your focus ring to infinity to ensure that the lightning and everything in the distance comes out crystal clear.
  • Aperture — Setting your camera to a wide aperture (f/1.4 to f/4) will allow you to capture the most light. Your aperture setting will depend on the intensity of the storm and how close you are to it. If you’re further away from a storm and the lightning strikes are further apart, you’ll want the widest aperture possible in order to capture the most strikes. If the lightning is coming very frequently and you’re closer to the storm, a smaller aperture (such as f/8 or f/11) may be better to avoid overexposed images. It’s a matter of trial and error, but once you find your perfect aperture setting you should be able to stick with it throughout the majority of the storm.
  • Shutter speed — As far as the length of the exposure goes, your bulb setting and cable release will allow you to keep the shutter open for however long you desire. If the lightning is further away and less frequent, you’ll want to keep the shutter open longer. If the lightning is closer and more frequent, you’ll want to keep the shutter open for a shorter period of time. Using a digital camera, you’ll be able to easily see how your photographs are turning out after each exposure. You can also follow this general rule: open the shutter, wait for two to three flashes of lightning, and then close the shutter.
  • White balance — When you choose to shoot lightning with auto white balance, the image tends to be warm. While white balance is a matter of personal preference, many dramatic storm images have a more bluish hue. While a red-toned storm image may seem menacing, a blue-toned image will create a gloomy, mysterious atmosphere. By setting your white balance to the tungsten setting, your camera will add blue tones to your images.
  • Post-processing — Although you can get multiple lightning strikes in one photograph using a long exposure, sometimes it’s easier to layer a couple of single lightning strike photographs into a single image to create an interesting composition. In order to do this, it’s important that you keep both your composition and night photography settings the same while photographing. Although you can tweak exposure in post-processing, making sure your photographs are uniform will make your life easier in the long run. 

Photographing lightning can be a thrilling process that gets your adrenaline pumping, and you can reap the benefits if you take these night photography tips and tricks into consideration the next time you go out to photograph a storm. Like most things, practice makes perfect. The more you shoot, the better you’ll get at estimating exposure settings. With a bit of patience, you’ll soon be photographing stunning images of lightning. So check your weather forecast and go find a storm. 

The Ultimate Guide to Mastering Night Photography Image19Photo by Tim Martin
Other forms of night photography

By approaching other subjects the way you’ve learned to photograph stars, light painting, and storms, you can easily master night photography with any subject. 

Learning how to take night photos requires an understanding of the exposure triangle. More light in the scene means you can use a faster shutter speed, while low key lighting will require longer exposures. Photographing objects in the foreground will require a smaller aperture to ensure that everything remains in focus. If your subject is further away, you can use a wider aperture. An ISO of 100 or 200 will result in less noise, but low light photography may require you to use a higher ISO. Alternatively, you can set your camera to bulb mode to take advantage of longer exposures and a lower ISO.

While practicing night photography in manual mode may seem overwhelming at first, the slow process allows you to really get to know your camera. Take a tripod, pack a warm sweater, and get creative! Brainstorm a few cool photography ideas and start shooting. By using these night photography tips and slowly tweaking your aperture, ISO, and shutter speed, you can learn how they affect each other. Before you know it, you’ll be taking night photographs like a pro. 

The Ultimate Guide to Mastering Night Photography Image20
The Ultimate Guide to Mastering Night Photography Image21


Photo by Evgeny Tchebotarev

To ensure that your final night photography images are the best they can be, edit them using easy, helpful Looks in Luminar 3. Try Luminar now to see how incredible your images can be.

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